The spectacular launch of two American astronauts into orbit Saturday by private SpaceX company with cooperation with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Boeing brought back memories of a time when space travel was an achievable goal by this nation.
It also took me back to some of the most enjoyable time I spent during our 23 years living and working the National Capital Region.
In late 1984, Congressman Manual Lujan asked me to become his Special Assistant to the Ranking Member of the Science & Technology Committee of the House of Representatives, an assignment with a wide portfolio of duties for the New Mexico legislator heading into his 10th term.
I had worked with Rep. Lujan in 1982 as his Communications Assistant for what was expected to be a tough run for re-election. He was a member of the S&T Committee and House Interior committees and New Mexico was home to the Sandia National Lab in Albuquerque that helped train the original astronauts and also Los Alamos, where the nuclear bombs that were used to end World War II were developed and tested at White Sands.
Spending time at the labs, at White Sands and at NASA operations at Cape Kennedy and in Houston gave me an appreciation of what America could accomplish in technology. I attended, photographed and filmed a Space Shuttle launch at the Cape and then was in White Sands when it landed there as a backup destination after weather prevented the scheduled location at Andrews Air Force Base.
NASA engineers, I discovered, were among the most competent, dedicated and enthusiastic men and women who strove to accomplish wondrous things in the space race. Several became good friends. Some are gone now but others remain, and we exchanged thoughts and messages this week about this week’s launch.
When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killed all seven astronauts on Jan.28, 1986, we mourned with NASA, the families and America. Rep. Lujan assigned me to join in on the investigation of the disaster and worked with other staff members of the investigation and the Rogers Commission appointed by the White House.
By that time, Space Shuttle flights became almost routine and many of us did not go down to the Cape for the launch. I was on a plane down there that afternoon and spent many days and nights working there, in Houston and at the offices and manufacturing facilities of the many vendors who produced the parts for the shuttle.
When a known “O-ring deterioration” problem contributed to the explosion that brought down the shuttle, it shook the confidence of the engineers who felt they had built double, triple and higher backup protections into the program.
The launch on that January morning came in colder temperatures than any previous takeoff, which added to the problem, we discovered in conversations with vendor Thiokol, which had declared the O-ring problem “resolved and closed.”
Loss of the Challenger and the seven astronauts — including civilian Christa McAuliffe, the first “teacher in space” — shut down shuttle flights for 32 months. Morale at NASA plummeted but so did the determination to find and fix the problem.
At the memorial service at the NASA flight control center in Houston, a NASA engineer told me that the shuttle flights should have been grounded because of the O-ring and other safety concerns. He said NASA managers disregarded warnings from their own engineers about dangers of launching in lower temperatures like the ones that morning in January 1968.
Our investigation found that the managers too often ignored the warnings of the scientists and engineers, a situation that haunts the Coronavirus pandemic in these current times.
“You don’t want to fly a commercial plane where one of the mechanics has told their bosses that a wing might fly off,” the engineer told me in Houston. “That what we had here.”
That very thought emerged in the final report. The O-ring concerns, we learned, existed in six previous shuttle flights. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Some of our engineer friends left NASA after they felt the managers who helped cause the Challenger disaster were never punished. Some, they said, were promoted. I left the Science & Technology Committee staff and the employment of Congress to become vice president of political programs for the National Association of Realtors.
I never worked for Congress or any other elected officials again.
Shuttles returned to flying but another problem, which had occurred in previous flights, brought down the Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003 when it reentered the atmosphere during its flight home. Once again, seven crew members died.
A piece of foam insulation had come off during launch and it allowed hot atmospheric gases to penetrate the heat shield — a problem detected on earlier flights and one that engineers told managers was a danger.
More of our friends left NASA after that loss. Too often, they said, their concerns were shunted aside by managers who felt getting the birds up in the air was more important than making sure they were safe.
Amy and I left the National Capital Region for good in 2004. After 23 years there, we felt it was time to go.
NASA shut down the shuttle program for 29 months for the Columbia investigation. While flights resumed, the shuttle program was living on borrowed time and flew its last mission in 2011.
The SpaceX capsule in orbit is scheduled to link up with the International Space Station Sunday. The launch was the first American effort to put its citizens into space in 10 years. For the most part, those needing transportation to the Space Station, hitched rides on Russian rockets.
We learned a lot from the dedicated engineers who put America in space and kept it there for decades. Sadly, our nation’s leaders continue to ignore the scientists who deal in facts, not politics or bias.
That ignorance cost the lives of 14 people in the shuttle program in two unnecessary disasters. A recent report shows that at least 36,000 of the 100,000 who have died in the Coronavirus pandemic this year were victims of a president who ignored the warnings of the scientific experts.
Such problems remain as the death toll continues to rise.